Amanda Clark and Sarah Lihan, seen competing here in Australia at the 2011 ISAF Sailing World Championships, will look for gold in London this summer.
U.S. Olympic Sailing Team members Amanda Clark and Sarah Lihan had a steep but exhilarating learning curve aboard the International 470s when they came together as a team just 15 months ago. Yet their performance has been nothing short of epic.
Earlier this year, they upset the favored U.S. team and, on a tiebreaker, won the U.S. Olympic Trials, giving them the nomination on the 2012 Olympic Team — pending U.S. Olympic Committee approval. Then, on June 9, Clark and Lihan took a silver medal in the Skandia Sail for Gold regatta in Weymouth, the host city in the United Kingdom for the 2012 Olympic sailing competition. With the team recently placing first in the ISAF 2012 World Cup circuit as well, this duo may well be the one to watch starting Aug. 2.
“Sarah and I have worked really hard for this,” Clark said after their Sail for Gold silver medal this month. “We’re psyched to take this momentum into the Olympics.”
“I think we’re the strongest we’ve ever been,” Lihan added. “Amanda is one of the most talented skippers in the world, and I’m honored to sail with her.”
Clark, 30, who is from Shelter Island, N.Y., is a veteran Olympic sailor, having placed 12th at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games in the International 470. Meanwhile Lihan, 23, is a former Laser Radial sailor who has competed in three Olympic trials. The two women came together after Clark’s 2008 Olympic teammate Sarah Chin retired from sailing 15 months ago. Clark found herself seeking a new teammate and found one in Lihan.“There is no precedence for this and joining forces just over one year before the Olympics seemed like an impossible task,” said Lihan, who hails from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “We have had our heads down and focused so long that we sometimes have to look around and realize what we have accomplished.”
One unique aspect to their sailing style is that they share the tactical decisions. “Calling tactics,” or making rapid-fire decisions on the water, is often left to the skipper, but because of the strengths of both sailors they share these decisions and take turns “calling” tactics on the upwind and downwind legs.
“For me to be calling tactics on the upwind and Amanda on the downwind requires a sort of trust that is really awesome,” Lihan said.
For Clark, having that trust in Lihan means that she can focus on driving the boat and optimizing the boat’s speed. And that has resulted in a winning combination.
“The 470 is an incredibly hard boat to sail and steer consistently, but I am really able to focus on the steering while Sarah calls the tactics,” Clark said. “We really function well together without stepping on each other’s toes. I may have been able to get Sarah to the next level as far as learning this boat, but she brings a wealth of information in her own right.”
An additional key to their success is their coach, Udi Gal, a two-time 470 Olympic sailor from Israel who has brought the team his expertise and experience.
“He has been absolutely incredible, and having a coach that is a previous Olympian brings us that special know-how,” Clark said.
Part of the know-how is a kind of mental toughness, as so much of the secret to winning sailboat races comes down to consistency.
“We may not always spend the entire regatta at the top of the leader board getting first-place finishes each time,” Clark said. “The key is to keep focusing back in and take consistent results and turn it into a strong regatta.”Preparing for the Olympic venue at Weymouth has involved a lot of cold-water sailing, heavy air sailing and learning the currents, but there is no way to predict how the wind and weather will be in August.
“The beauty and terror of being a sailor is that you are at the whim of the weather and when you look at us as athletes, we are not just training physically but we also have to be weathermen and boatswains –– and we learn how to deal with real varied types of stress,” Lihan said. “What we learn how to do is manage and control what we can and also manage our reaction to what we can’t control.”